Thinking Out Loud

June 23, 2016

The Labyrinth

LabyrinthOne of the Anglican churches in the town where I live has a labyrinth in the field behind the building. I remember the first time I saw it, probably well over a decade ago, and thinking it a rather odd sight for a Christian place of worship. Wikipedia (linked above) offers this origin:

In Greek mythology, the labyrinth (Greek: λαβύρινθος labyrinthos) was an elaborate structure designed and built by the legendary artificer Daedalus for King Minos of Crete at Knossos. Its function was to hold the Minotaur eventually killed by the hero Theseus. Daedalus had so cunningly made the Labyrinth that he could barely escape it after he built it.

Later on the article states

Prehistoric labyrinths are believed to have served as traps for malevolent spirits or as defined paths for ritual dances. In medieval times, the labyrinth symbolized a hard path to God with a clearly defined center (God) and one entrance (birth). In their cross-cultural study of signs and symbols, Patterns that Connect, Carl Schuster and Edmund Carpenter present various forms of the labyrinth and suggest various possible meanings, including not only a sacred path to the home of a sacred ancestor, but also, perhaps, a representation of the ancestor him/herself: “…many [New World] Indians who make the labyrinth regard it as a sacred symbol, a beneficial ancestor, a deity. In this they may be preserving its original meaning: the ultimate ancestor, here evoked by two continuous lines joining its twelve primary joints.”

Almost as a postscript, the article ends with a section headed “Christian use”

Labyrinths have on various occasions been used in Christian tradition as a part of worship. The earliest known example is from a fourth-century pavement at the Basilica of St Reparatus, at Orleansville, Algeria, with the words “Sancta Eclesia” at the center, though it is unclear how it might have been used in worship.

In medieval times, labyrinths began to appear on church walls and floors around 1000 C.E.. The most famous medieval labyrinth, with great influence on later practice, was created in Chartres Cathedral.  The purpose of the labyrinths is not clear, though there are surviving descriptions of French clerics performing a ritual Easter dance along the path on Easter Sunday.  Some books (guidebooks in particular) suggest that mazes on cathedral floors originated in the medieval period as alternatives to pilgrimage to the Holy Land…

I’m sure my Baptist friends, if I had some, would be more strongly shocked and possibly even repulsed at the idea of such a very non-Biblical thing being part of the structure of the church. Nowhere do the scriptures suggest the construction or use of such. It’s very foreign to our experience…

300px-Labyrinth_at_Chartres_CathedralIn the bookstore where I work a couple of days a week there are two aisles at the front, three in the middle and one at the back. Occasionally, when there are no customers (which is an increasingly common problem) I will pick up a book, kick off my shoes, and start walking up and down the aisles forming a somewhat random pattern of circles. I’m able to read and walk at the same time without serious injury; although this practice of pounding bare feet on a thin carpet supported by a concrete floor may have led to my current symptoms of plantar fasciitis. For some reason, I find I make great progress reading this way, not unlike the times as a teen I would play improvisations on the piano while studying the geography or chemistry textbook for an exam. Either the rhythm of this type of activity, or the built-in distraction helps me focus.

I wonder if there’s any real difference between what I do at the store and the Anglicans who walk the labyrinth?

We can be so quick to criticize; so hasty in our judgment that we don’t realize we are often doing the same things only differently; or with different terminology. I could just as easily pace the floor and meditate on a passage of scripture or even pray (keeping my eyes open of course so I don’t crash into a display of coffee mugs.)

I’m sure the focus of the labyrinth at an Anglican or Episcopalian church is prayer and meditation. Those are good things, right?

Still…this is clearly an extra-Biblical practice. I also wonder if the more things we add on to the elements of church life, instead of creating forms and devices that aid people in spiritual disciplines, we simply have layered on another disciplines, and thereby robbed people of the more basic approach to prayer and meditation. (Heck, my imaginary Baptist friends really don’t like that last word, either.)

The other challenge is the possibility that a few people make some of these practices which lie on the fringes of the Christian life more central than they need to be. It can be for some an obsession, or a ritual which obscures more important things we ought to be doing.

I’m quite sure there are Evangelical equivalents.


Top image: St. John the Evangelist Church in South Lancaster, Ontario. I tried to find one for the church where I live, but this one is similar.

Bottom image: Wikipedia

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